Your marriage isn't like a Hollywood movie, and neither is your sex life.
Great sex won't save your marriage. There, I said it. You have no idea how many people ask me about this. "My partner and I used to have sex all the time when we were first dating. It was fantastic," they say. And I nod my head, because I've heard this story plenty of times before. I wait for the word that always comes next: "But..."
But then things changed. Then life got in the way—we bought a new house, started working more hours to pay for it, had children, gained a few pounds, or a lot of pounds, fell into routines, and stopped having sex. Now our marriage is on the rocks. We're fighting, we're tired all the time, we don't appreciate each other any more, and we're not attracted to each other as much as we used to be. We're bored. Maybe one or both of us has cheated, or we're sexually anorexic and haven’t had sex at all in six months, or six years.
So far, this is a common story. It happens to a lot of people. Then, someone always asks me how to rekindle that sexual relationship with their husband or wife as a way to save the marriage. I have to shake my head and stop them right there. Is lack of sex the cause of the problem, or just a symptom of other problems?
"Sex, even great sex, won't save your marriage," I say. And they look at me like I just landed from another planet. "Marriage is too complicated for any one thing to be able to fix it. Great sex is great, and I'm all in favor of you working to bring it back, but it isn't a silver bullet that's going to fix all your other problems," I tell them.
Part of the problem is that we've all been brainwashed by Hollywood. Every time you go on a date to see a romantic comedy, you're being lied to. Romantic comedies are great, they're fun entertainment, and it feels good to laugh when the couple on the screen find each other, cry when they lose each other, and laugh again. You wipe away your tears when they find each other again at the end.
But, the relationship in a romantic comedy lasts two hours, and your marriage has to last a lot longer than that. The romantic relationships you see in movies and on television aren't any more real than the cop shows where the officers spend all their time in exciting car chases or solving interesting murders, none of them filling out paperwork or complaining about their jobs and bosses.
You know what a murder detective really does? Homicide detectives have one of the least interesting jobs out there—they hardly ever leave their desk and they certainly never go out, and assemble all the suspects in the drawing room to dramatically reveal who the killer is. No, homicide detectives spend 99% of their working hours calling people on the telephone and going through a stack of files on their desk.
Nobody would pay to watch a movie or TV show about a homicide detective spending eight hours a day on the phone at a dirty desk under buzzing fluorescent lights, with occasional trips down the hall to the bathroom. Nobody would watch movies that showed ordinary marriages, either—people sitting on the couch watching TV, trying to get the kids to sit and eat dinner at the table, taking out the garbage, writing checks for mortgage payments, taking the car to the garage for a tune up, walking the dog, or arguing about whose turn it is to vacuum the carpets.
Hollywood's job is to entertain you, not tell you the truth. Hollywood loves hot sex scenes for a lot of reasons. But just like cop shows and romances, nobody would much want to watch ordinary sex scenes on the screen—you know, nervous parents locking the door and hoping the kids stay asleep, or married couples so anxious about finally getting a chance to have sex that they can hardly do it.
So, it's time to re-think your ideas about sex, especially married sex. Because of all this brainwashing by Hollywood and popular culture, we tend to think of sex as a performance with a goal, or should I say a climax, at the end. We tend to forget everything else and just focus in on the final bit, on getting there. The focus is so great that often we get there way too soon, or not at all, and then we feel bad. Or, because we're bored by our partner, we think of somebody else and then we feel bad, too. There's a lot of pressure on us about sex, and if it has to be "great," well, then the pressure is also greater.
If sex is just a stressful athletic performance, it won't create much of a connection between two people. Indeed, sex of this type can be a barrier to intimacy.
Professional therapists think of sex quite differently, and try to teach people that sex is a spectrum of intimate touching and emotional involvement that includes actual intercourse sometimes, but isn't defined by intercourse and orgasm. They call it "non-goal-oriented sex."
What you want is an emotional connection with your spouse, not just a physical one. You don't want to just check a box that says, "We had sex this week," and move on. You want to build, or rebuild, an intimate connection between the two of you.
The spectrum of "non-goal-oriented sex" includes touching, hugging, cuddling, massage, and also talking. It includes telling each other sweet things, saying "I love you," spending time together and focusing just on each other, not on anything else. This kind of activity often leads to the other kind of sex, too, which is great. But, more importantly, it creates and sustains an emotional bond between you and your spouse, and that connection can save your marriage.
Every marriage, indeed, every relationship between two people goes through its ups and downs. A marriage is a complicated physical, emotional and logistical arrangement that requires a whole lot of work to keep it going. That's why there's no silver bullet to fix all the problems.